Note: This is the second of a two-part series on driving destinations in New Jersey.
On a sunny afternoon just past Labor Day, the glittering towers of Atlantic City’s resorts cast long, strange shadows over the vacant lots below.
The peculiar contrast between those soaring structures and the wasteland they overlook is an apt visual metaphor for this strangest of New Jersey cities, which itself has a notorious history of boom and bust, its fortunes vacillating like those of the gamblers in its fabled casinos.
And on that rollercoaster cycle, Atlantic City currently hovers near the nadir — flirting with bankruptcy and watching five of its dozen casinos shutter over the past few years, including the three resorts developed by Republican presidential candidate Donald J. Trump.
Yet the beach is still magnificent; the boardwalk hums with activity, even with a few shuttered stores here and there; the seaside Jewish scene is lively; and inside the casinos that remain, a colorful world of high-end dining, oversized cocktails, and sky-high sea views awaits. For high rollers and the weekend getaway crowd, Atlantic City offers a striking contrast to New Jersey’s tidy suburban and bucolic country landscapes.
Occupying a tiny corner of flat, marshy Absecon Island, Atlantic City had a local monopoly on casinos in the 1970s, when gambling was legalized to revitalize the slumping beach resort and Jewish developers were among those capitalizing on the momentum. But lately, the combination of on-line gambling and new casinos in neighboring states has soured the scene. The gaudy, hulking shells of dead gambling parlors sit forlornly amid pawn shops and empty lots earmarked for now-cancelled projects.
Inside the Tropicana casino, though, nobody cares. A lively Latin beat animates the theme-park recreation of Old Havana known as The Quarter, Atlantic City’s latest contribution to the genre of ersatz foreignness. In contrast to the jarring blight outside, the escapist worlds inside the Tropicana, the lavish pools and spas at the Borgata, and the karaoke bars and theaters all over town are a self-contained fantasy.
Up and down the boardwalk (and even inside the Tropicana), the confection of choice is kosher salt water taffy from the James’s and Fralinger’s candy stores, whose chewy Jersey specialties in a range of flavors have long been a favorite. Jews starting coming to Atlantic City in the late 19th century, savoring its cool sea breezes. After World War II, a number of Holocaust survivors also settled here; a Shoa memorial on the boardwalk is reportedly in the works.
Like many of those Jews, my husband, Oggi, and daughter Zelda migrated south along the beach to Ventnor and Margate City, hub of the area’s postwar Jewish community. Shops and eateries disappeared from the boardwalk, replaced by a tableau of seagulls, joggers, and strolling couples. Ventnor City — if the name sounds familiar, it’s because the area inspired the Monopoly place names — is home to several kosher eateries, including Bubbie’s Bistro, an Italian dairy restaurant, and Jerusalem Glatt Kosher, a traditional dining room for meat specialties.
In neighboring Margate City, we were greeted by Lucy, the iconic six-story-high elephant who looks like she’s wandered out of a Bollywood movie and onto the beach. Built in 1881 as a novelty sculpture, the exotic beast is a historic landmark — and a popular attraction whose wooden interior you can tour in season.
Lucy is also an example of the few but distinctive historical relicts that endure amid the postwar sprawl. While other Northeastern beach resorts cherish their old-fashioned charm, Atlantic City tears down historic blocks with abandon, reinventing in the style of its Western counterpart, Las Vegas. A few years ago, the area’s first synagogue, a historic 1892 structure on Pennsylvania Avenue, was razed as neighbors cried in protest.
For a more respectful look at the area’s Jewish past, head inland to Woodbine, a leafy town with a unique Jewish history preserved at the Sam Azeez Museum of Woodbine Heritage.
Housed in the vintage, red-brick Brotherhood Synagogue, the museum spotlights a little-known chapter in South Jersey history: the 19th-century settlement of Russian Jews to what a wealthy German philanthropist had intended as a model agricultural community here. While farming failed to catch on with the Jewish newcomers, their synagogue earned a spot on the National Register of Historic Places, with a restored sanctuary and exhibits documenting the growth of South Jersey’s Jewish community.
Back up in Atlantic City, we contemplated a landmark that greeted those early Jewish settlers: the Absecon Lighthouse, an austere, navy-and-white-striped obelisk that towers over the casinos downtown. First lit in the 1850s, it ceased its primary function nearly a century ago, but a light still shines at night — and exercise enthusiasts can climb 228 steps for a view over the ocean.
My seasoned Jersey friends recommended a swing by Gardner’s Basin, a peaceful boaters’ enclave just minutes from the strip. On a spit of land at the city’s northern fringe, Gardner’s is surrounded by a placid inlet on one side and a picturesque, sailboat-filled harbor on the other. “It’s like Venice,” I told Oggi, who looked dubious until I pointed out the ice cream shops and quaint dockside patio. “It’s like Martha’s Vineyard,” he countered.
Actually, it was like neither. But a swing through the Atlantic City Aquarium at Gardner’s Basin was the perfect indoor diversion — small enough for a toddler’s attention span and filled with close-up creatures both exotic and familiar, like moray eels and the horseshoe crabs native to these waters.
Change may again transform Atlantic City’s oceanfront, but the lure of beach, bay, and salt water taffy endures.